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Showing posts from April, 2010

A Palace, a Promise, and an Empty Canvas

In the morning, before the crowds arrive, Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace and the park behind it belong to the early birds: ducks, chattering in Neptune's Fountain; slugs, slimy and rust colored, making their way across the empty paths; gardeners, plucking weeds, working silently with rakes and hoes. Serenity reigns. My early morning Schönbrunn is an empty canvas. In that sense it is like other morning destinations, not different from the places in L.A. where I used to run off the night and enjoy the promise of a new day. For all I know it is not even different from Canaletto's early morning Schönbrunn 250 years ago. (In the image shown Canaletto depicts the gardens as busy, but by the look of the shadows he was painting in the afternoon.) The first buses arrive before nine a.m., earlier in the summer. Tourists swarm out by the dozens. From their guides they hear about Empress Maria Theresa under whose reign Schönbrunn Palace as we know it was finished in the 18th century. The

Baby vs. Counsellor to the Court

Teacher P., who is American, calls me Baby. Good for her. There is something democratic about this address, something egalitarian (unless, of course, the term is being used in a sexist way). Now, just for the record: Teacher P. and I have not met in person. The class is online, and P. used the Baby in a written comment on my home work; By the look of her photo P. is young enough to be my daughter; I am by no means the youngest in the class. Most of my fellow students seem to be in their twenties or thirties. Baby. We are more formal in Austria, don't even use first names easily. It is not Franz and Liesl but Herr Mair and Frau Müller (Mr. Mair, Mrs. Müller), at least until the first drink. If a person has a title, academic or occupational, we use it - instead of the name. Herr Mair becomes Herr Magister (Mr. MA), Frau Müller becomes Frau Doktor (Mrs. PhD); the school staff goes by Herr Professor and Frau Direktor. The neighbor across the street is Herr Hofrat (Mr. Counsellor

Birthday Question for VALIE EXPORT

This afternoon, listening to the radio, I heard parts of an interview with the Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT whose 70th birthday is coming up in May. Here's a snippet from the program, a question the reporter asked: On milestone birthdays it is customary to ask the jubilant about the highlights of her life. I would like to turn this around and ask you about your lowest points... The question got me thinking: Why is it that we Austrians focus on the negative? Does it, in some weird way, make us happy? I doubt it. In fact, according to one survey Austria is among the more unhappy nations in Europe, ranking only 20th out of 30. (By contrast, it is number four for wealth, as measured by household income.) Anyone who has lived in Vienna for a while knows: people like to complain here. They moan and groan. Their glass is half empty. Ask a colleague or a neighbor how they are doing and the response will range from Terrible! to So so. Versions are: Don't ask! and Well, I've bee

Coffee, Chips, and Change (Cafés 1)

Smells of coffee and cigarettes, the background hum of conversations and discussions, cups clanking on metal trays, stacks of newspapers on a side table, servers in black suits, moving silently, upright. To think Vienna, is to think coffee houses. When I was living here in the 1990s Café Drechsler (top picture) was a favorite. It had that coffee house patina: chipped chairs, yellowing walls, a touch of seediness, the lights a notch too low. Drechsler's has since been renovated (bottom picture). Sir Terence Conran of London was asked to design. He went for the classical - red benches, black chairs -, added some whimsical detail, some writing on the wall. I too have changed, moved on to other places: tiny Café Bakery Europane in L.A., the more contemporary orientoccident in Vienna, across from Drechsler's. Starbucks? Only if desperate for caffeine. (Pictures courtesy of Café Drechsler)